When it started, journalists may have thought—like many Americans—that the war in Iraq would be over in a flash. Now in its second year, TV news organizations know the lingering war has become an unusually grim and expensive budgetary line item.
Drill down into war news budgets, and you'll recognize that the bean counters aren't paying just for reporters and photographers. For example, of the approximately four dozen people CNN has in Iraq, slightly more than half work as security guards, according to Eason Jordan, president of newsgathering. Even at $1,000 a day (and some bodyguards make twice that), that expense alone could be costing CNN $360,000 a month.
Network insiders estimate that ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, and NBC combined have spent roughly $35 million over the past year to cover the Iraq conflict, about $6 million each. NBC—feeding its home network, CNBC, MSNBC, and Telemundo—may have spent a little more, $8 million to $9 million. Each of the networks has about half as many people there as it did at the beginning, when coverage was often almost exuberant in tone.
News executives knew going in that the cost of covering the war would be huge. The biggest surprise has been the duration and stepped-up intensity of hostilities, says NBC News Vice President Bill Wheatley: "I don't believe anyone anticipated that we would be spending at these levels a year into the conflict."
Every journalist in Iraq has heard the scary stories. In February, a two-car caravan carrying a CBS production team was traveling outside Baghdad when a third vehicle squeezed in between. Moments later, an explosive device from the intruding car went off. The trailing car in the caravan was hit with the explosive. The CBS crew was banged up and badly shaken. But they survived because they were traveling in an armored car that cushioned the blow—and those cost $150,000 to $200,000 each. All the networks have some.
One network executive says his company is paying $2 million a year for life insurance for employees who are, quite literally, in harm's way. That expense and security—highly trained, ex-Special Forces military types that all the networks have hired from shadowy British firms like Centurion, Pilgrims, and AKE—are the largest line items for the networks.
"The money is not a big concern," says Jordan. "It's the safety of our people."
The travel costs were huge to begin with and are growing as the networks platoon journalists and crews in and out of the country on shorter rotations—every four to six weeks due to the intensity of the duty. The cost of getting a crew of five in and out via plane runs about $12,000.
So far, the costs are manageable, say knowledgeable insiders at the news divisions. But that's only because the parent companies have given their news divisions extra money; executives suggest that each network is boosting its news budget by about $3 million going directly to Iraq coverage.
"When something is so extraordinary that it goes on for a year or longer, you just can't cover it out of your own budget," says Marcy McGinnis, senior vice president, news coverage, CBS News.
Says an insider at another news organization, "They know it's expensive, they know we've been fiscally disciplined, and they've been exceedingly generous in making sure we have the money we need to cover the war."
What's not being covered? If you hear it from the network executives, no area of news coverage is being sacrificed. "I don't feel there are any glaring omissions," says ABC Executive Vice President Paul Slavin. The political campaign, he says, has been "handled appropriately" up to now.
Even at CNN, where 100 jobs were cut in New York and Washington several months ago, officials insist those cuts had nothing to do with war coverage. Those layoffs were specifically related to eliminating higher-cost subcontractor union jobs.
Andrew Tyndall, publisher of The Tyndall Report, which tracks the stories aired by the network newscasts, says the networks have lucked out in the sense that "there really hasn't been another story of such overriding importance" that would force an awkward choice about what to cover.
"There's sort of a natural lull" in the political campaign between now and the conventions, he says.
Still, all the news divisions are watching every penny they spend and are forgoing some stories that they might do if not for the war. "Does it restrict our thinking about certain things we might do under other circumstances, yes," says Jim Murphy, executive producer for TheCBS Evening News With Dan Rather. "But it's also because of editorial judgments. For instance, if we weren't in the war, we might be talking about traveling to more local markets and doing more features. But we're not, because the money is better spent covering the news."
Resources are constantly juggled, even in the hot spots, says McGinnis. She cites Afghanistan; "There's nothing happening there, and we're sitting there wondering if Osama Bin Laden is going to get caught. Maybe that's a place where you cut from Peter to pay Paul."
Geographically, the networks get a breather this summer. The networks will spend less covering the political conventions because the Republicans meet in New York, where all but one of the networks have their hubs, and the Democrats meet in Boston, which is also logistically easy.
"I was hoping both parties would choose New York," McGinnis says. Networks would have saved thousands on hotels alone.
Coverage ought to be sparse because neither convention is likely to have much of a storyline; there's no fight for either nomination. (For NBC, the biggest story might be that these will be the last times Tom Brokaw anchors the coverage. He retires in early December.)
Slavin says it's likely ABC will do fewer hours of prime time coverage of the conventions this year. In 2000, they were "devoid of news and stage-managed for the benefit of television." But he stresses that, however ABC covers them, it won't be "tit for tat in the sense of the war is costly, make it up here."
Says McGinnis, "We have budgets for the war, the conventions, the political campaigns, and overall news so everything is sort of semi-connected. I'm not cutting back on convention coverage to support the war, but what is always in the back of my mind is, where are we on every individual budget and, hopefully, we aren't over it on every section."
The broader political campaign has been cheaper to cover this year, says John Stack, vice president, newsgathering, Fox News. "The best cost savings that occurred for everybody regarding the campaign was the fact that the Democrats got down to one candidate very quickly. The news organizations had nothing to do with it," he says. "It was the American electorate."
CBS's Murphy notes that the war might just become the big story of the conventions. "We may find ourselves at the conventions but leading with the war. That doesn't generally happen," he says, "but obviously, we'll lead with the most important story. I can't imagine the Republicans won't have the antiwar issue when they're in New York."